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The lost day: Developing writer’s discipline

Dear Gene,

I can well imagine the problems you’re having organizing your days. The discipline it takes to develop a routine when work, family, and volunteering don’t is something I have yet to master well—and I haven’t had worked for anyone else since 2003.

Yes, you will point out I am a union brother. We have to be the best, particularly in an environment constantly working against us. We have to be on the job, tooled up, and ready to bend over and start at the turn of 7 a.m. But ironwork, for me, is something that interests me. It’s a place to invest my immense physical energies and keep my mind right. That it’s on someone else’s schedule doesn’t change the fact that it is, for me, mental health work.

Still, since I am working on dissertation this summer and don’t have ironwork to keep me in a fixed routine, I’ve had to develop a discipline that works to keep me from feeling the guilt of having the luxury of NOT having to work a real job for a living. Granted, I like to say I quit my job to start my work. This is true. But it is incredible privilege.

That privilege, however, only comes with mental, physical, and spiritual labor. I am putting myself on the line. I move through enormous mountains of fear, often suffering bone-crushing depression, mania, and intractable insecurity. I suffer fragility borne from mental illness. I am easily thrown off the track, either by my own sense of guilt and shame or by the pressure of others (that I only imagine). I often live, as Rousseau wrote, in the opinions of others. I do nothing creatively with ease. Often it is sheer willpower and the motivation that comes from the fear of doing nothing outweighing the fear of doing something (anything).

This, I feel from your letter, is what you are dealing with. The solution for me has always been a process. Unfortunately, I have to become completely paralyzed by dread and anxiety. I get to the point where this paralysis turns into a kind of acceptance of being frightened and then seeing that that fear comes out of looking at things too seriously. I imagine dreadful failure. This preoccupation with the future, a future exists only in my own mind, breaks down into what I can do in the moment. I get to the small things that will bring me progress, if only a little, and then I begin to see the ridiculousness of the situation I have created for myself. The dam breaks and I am on my way again.

Pirsig wrote of this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He would counsel students who suffered writer’s block to imagine describing a wall. The wall, of itself, is something large and difficult to describe well. Taking a brick in the wall—the smallest piece of a something overwhelming—and putting that on paper leads to another brick and the mortar between. Then another brick until one has deciphered the entire wall and the project is built almost of itself.

This is pertinent to my situation, and to yours, I think. I have only gained confidence in my ability to write well in the last few years. Talent would help, I suppose. But since I have little talent, I make that up in hard work and persistence. Little by little, work by written work, I have accepted that becoming a major writer is not my goal, but that writing is. I have confidence in that. I can do this. If there is one thing I believe, it is that I can do this.

And it starts with developing a discipline in which I am persistent but not one-eyebrow serious. The routine I set for myself is flexible. If I get such and such done today, I have accomplished what I set out to do. If I didn’t happen to get that done today, well, I will do better tomorrow.

Which brings me to my final point: I have to relearn, time and again, that when I go to bed at night, I have to review my day consciously. Did I do my best today? If not, was it because I was tired, suffering from mental illness, or because other things came in the way? If so, what can I do better tomorrow to reach the point where I have done all I was able?

I think if you can get yourself into this discipline of assessing your day honestly and seeing what you can do better tomorrow, which is the greatest and most helpful discipline beyond planning what to do and when, then you will find, perhaps, as I have, that after a series of these kinds of assessments, your days will have improved almost by themselves. This is really the process of breaking life down to its smallest pieces, building Pirsig’s wall, as it were, brick by brick.

You will find your way. The most beautiful thing of all and the easiest to forget, however, is that even if you do not find your way today or tomorrow or next week, month, or year, you will still find your way. It is inevitable.

I wish you all the luck in the world. I look forward to your next missive. Please don’t make my mailbox lonely.


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